ESPN, ABC Sports Target ACC Football

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ESPN and ABC are nearing a rights deal with the Atlantic Coast Conference, reflective of the college-sports league's expanding football footprint.

The pact, which could be valued in excess of $250 million, would extend through 2010 and supersede an existing agreement covering the 2004 and 2005 seasons.

Negotiations have been spurred by the addition of collegiate football powers Virginia Tech and Miami to the ACC for the 2004 season, with Boston College joining the following campaign. At that point, the then 12-team ACC would host its first championship game, televised by ABC at an annual cost of some $6 million.

ESPN/ABC Sports executives are scheduled to meet with ACC officials in Greensboro, N.C., on Feb. 19 and 20 to finalize the pact. IMG is handling the conference's rights negotiations.

“We're getting closer to a deal,” ESPN spokesman Mike Soltys said. “At the meeting next week, we will be discussing a wide range of issues.”

If consummated, the agreement could double the number of ACC games on ESPN and ESPN2 to 18 per season, including six on Thursday nights (up from three in 2003) — a window in which the total-sports network has registered significant ratings numbers in recent seasons.

Deal points also center on pay-per-view, video-on-demand and HDTV rights.

In 2003, ESPN averaged a 2.07 household rating for 13 contests (1.81 million households) on Thursday nights, versus a 2.21 rating (2.03 million households) for the same number of games in 2002.

ESPN pulled a 2.32 rating (2.03 million households) with 16 primetime Saturday night games last season, versus a 2.18 average (1.89 million households) for 17 contests the season before.

Sources said ESPN was scheduled to pay the nine ACC schools about $2.6 million in the 2004 season, before the expansion issues came into play.

The price might have been influenced by interest from other parties. Published reports indicated Fox and Fox Sports Net were mulling an ACC offer, and Turner Sports might have combined with CBS on a package.

ESPN/ABC has enjoyed an exclusive negotiating period with the ACC. “We would have had interest if the ACC package had become available,” Turner Sports president David Levy said in a statement. “We would like to have increased our presentation of college football on TBS Superstation.”

TBS currently holds rights to a primetime/Saturday package featuring contests from the Pac 10 and Big 12 conferences.

The rights to syndicated ACC football action were all up in the air at press time. Longtime rights-holder Jefferson-Pilot is still negotiating. ESPN declined to comment on its interest, should the package become available.

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